The Curious Case of the Obamacare Doge

Doge images usually utilize an image of a Shiba Inu.

Doge images usually utilize an image of a Shiba Inu. leungchopan/

Why did an HHS tweet get hundreds of favorites but mostly negative comments?

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Director of Web Communications Jeffrey Levy posed an interesting question to Twitter this morning asking why this Obamacare-promoting tweet from the Health and Human Services Department that capitalized on the doge Internet meme received hundreds of favorites and retweets but primarily negative or mocking comments.

The tweet shows the Internet-famous Shiba Inu dog bounding through the snow with captions that appear to praise Obamacare and the federal online marketplace in disjointed English, including the phrases “much affordable” and “many coverage.”

Levy’s question gets at the supreme difficulty of gauging audience reaction on social media where it’s always difficult to suss out how much of any particular response is genuine and how much is tongue in cheek.

Two explanations occur to me from the pre-Internet world. First, you could make a slightly modified version of the “silent majority” argument that stretches back to at least Richard Nixon. That would mean the majority of people who encountered the tweet liked it but were only moved to a low-commitment response -- favoriting and retweeting -- while the snarking class of “nattering nabobs” overran the higher-commitment sphere of actual comments.

Second, there’s the possibility of Internet peer pressure and herding. According to this argument some of those positive retweeters may have considered posting positive comments about the tweet but were scared off by the overwhelmingly negative response and didn’t want to express an unpopular or uncool opinion.

To gather more thoughts I polled members of the Nextgov crew who presumably match the HHS tweet’s target audience -- Web savvy types younger than 34 (the demographic the Obama administration is trying to lure to in order to lower the risk, and so lower the premiums, in Obamacare insurance pools).

The 20-somethings in that set had a less charitable explanation. They suggested the majority of favorites and retweets were actually ironic -- either because tweeters were bemused that government was turning to an Internet meme at all on a topic as serious as health care or because, as Assistant Web Producer Caitlin Fairchild pointed out, HHS arguably misunderstood the meme.

“I’m no expert, but I think the meme’s meant to be sarcastic,” she wrote. “And I’m assuming HHS means ‘much affordable’ and ‘very benefits’ genuinely and not sarcastically.”

Our senior Web producer, Ross Gianfortune, had a more complex explanation, suggesting the audience of people who commented on the HHS tweet may have been substantially different from the audience that retweeted and favorited it.

The former group is likely a younger and more social media savvy set, he suggested, for whom the doge meme, which Gawker begrudgingly highlighted back in November, is old and played out.

“It’s like when a high school English teacher uses ‘def’ or some other dated slang in an attempt to connect with the class,” he said.

The latter group is broader and recognizes the meme but isn’t hip enough to realize it’s past its prime.

“You take the good with the bad,” he said. “HHS, I hope, knew this going in.”

This could be read as an argument in favor of HHS’ strategy on a marketing level. (For the record, Ross notes he’d prefer HHS used rational arguments to sell young people on Obamacare rather than Internet memes.) Marketing is a volume game after all, and it doesn’t pay to sell to people at the very bleeding edge -- especially if your product will essentially expire in one month when Obamacare’s open enrollment period ends.

Do you have other thoughts on the HHS doge tweet? Or on whether government should be trafficking in memes at all? Share them in the comments.

Get the Nextgov iPhone app to keep up with government technology news.

(Image via leungchopan/